During this week of studies, guided by the theme “Three ‘Surfaces’”, we discussed the three main formats made available to the artist through which s/he may choose to present his/her work, namely, that is, through exhibitions, publications and/or workshops. In this blog post, I would like to discuss the curatorial work that goes on prior to the presentation of the work to the public. But I would like to point out that what I will be discussing here is not the common perception of the curator as a role occupied by an individual separate to the creator of the work, whose task is to aid the creator in preparing the work for entry into the public domain (in whatever format that may happen) and who has, to a greater or lesser extent, control over the resultant presentation of the work. Here I discuss the curatorial work done by the artist himself/herself in the selection, editing and sequencing of the work prior to showcasing the work to the public. Essentially, what I will be speaking about is the role of curator being embodied by the artist himself/herself. I am taking this approach as it is essentially the strategy I have had to adopt for the current work I am preparing in relation to the final major project I am to submit as part of my studies, seeing that I do not envision (at least in the near future) having the luxury of having a curator guiding me through the whole process of preparing the work to eventually present to the public. I will thus be discussing how I am working with the current material in order that the work, once displayed to the public, will produce the desired effect on the viewer. Most of my discussion will be based on Ralph Rugoff’s essay on the curatorial work performed by curators organizing group exhibitions, arguments contained therein that I find equally pertinent to the curatorial work done by the individual artist in the process of preparing his/her work for entry into the public domain through whichever of the three aforementioned formats. I see a certain degree of affinity between exhibitions and publications; and since I envision presenting the finished work I am currently working on in one or both of these formats, I will omit generalizing my thoughts to the workshop format.
One could assume that my main concern with this project is to produce a series of stellar photos. Talking about the group exhibition, Rugoff points out, though, that “while a lineup of stellar works will no doubt provide an audience with a series of rewarding experiences, it will not necessarily make for a memorable exhibition” (2006: 44). Rugoff instead suggests that an exhibition should invite the viewers to make connections between the different works. Rugoff states that a group exhibition “like an orgy, […] brings things together in stimulating and unpredictable combinations. It immerses us in an experience of shifting yet interlinked viewpoints, and multiple climaxes. It juxtaposes works whose overlapping concerns resonate in ways that transform our experience of them. And it invites us to explore a seemingly newly discovered territory of art that contains within it more than we can hold in our heads at any one moment. […] it complicates, amplifies, and enlivens our encounter with each object while encouraging us to seek out the ways they fit together as pieces in larger puzzles. […] it thickens the plot in a fashion that gives us, as viewers, something else to do besides simply look and applaud” (Ibid. 44). I find this argument most pertinent to my individual curatorial work. Although in my case all the works will be produced by a singular person, namely myself, I am not aiming (or hoping) to produce a collection of masterpieces. Rather, my aim is to present work that will engage the viewer in a dialectic with it, a dialectic not necessarily based on reason. While the work I am working on should still provide a valued and meaningful aesthetic experience, it should also aim to deepen this experience by presenting alternative, maybe even conflicting, stacked layers of meaning through the final selection and juxtaposition of the individual works.
The manner through which we present our work is pivotal in placing the work in its proper context. In fact, Rugoff states that “the closest analogy to what curators do can be found in the field of consumer packaging” (2006: 45). Rugoff argues that “consumer research industry has demonstrated the ways in which our experience of an object, and our subsequent interpretation, is shaped by the context that frames our encounter” (Ibid. 45). Rugoff though is quick to point out that the type of packaging he is considering in the context of curating group exhibitions, “unlike the packaging of commercial products, is not solely concerned with grabbing our attention or arousing our desires” (Ibid. 45). The packaging Rugoff is envisioning ought to provoke the viewer “not to simply consume but to question the experience on offer” (Ibid. 45). To effectuate this, Rugoff argues that the work should “provide us with loopholes and escape hatches from the packaging they impose on our encounters with art” (Ibid. 46). Indeed, I believe that providing an escape route is vital in the experience we may wish our viewers to have when beholding our work. If such an escape route is not provided, one may never be certain whether the work is being truly experienced by the viewers or merely indoctrinating its viewers with our own viewpoints. Similar to the way we carry out scientific research on human participants, our work must make it clear to the viewer that s/he can take a step back at any point during the experience. Unlike scientific research conducted on human participants, though, artistic work needs to provide an escape route not only to safeguard the rights and interests of its ‘participants’ (as is done in scientific research), but, more importantly, to allow them to question the experience itself.
I hope that the work I am currently working on, once presented, will potentiate an open, shared space for encounter – encounter, firstly, with the work, and, through it, with human presence. Thus, the primary relation with the work must remain meta: the work must allow the viewer to acknowledge, question and reinterpret the relational act of perception. Through that meta-analytical act, in which the viewer is invited to bring to the table his/her arsenal of life experiences, the work becomes meaningful, as, as Rugoff quoting Duchamp states, “the viewer is responsible for half the work in creating art’s meaning” (2006: 46).
In the previous module, I worked on capturing images of the mechanical crane. I then believed that the work would eventually develop into a typology of the mechanical crane (for more on this, see this previous blog post). In the current module, I came to see myself denied entry into the field of photographic typology. I thus started to conceive of the idea of capturing the other kind of cranes – the ones studied in ornithology, that is. Seeing that it is difficult to sight such birds in Malta, I thought of photographing small statuettes of these birds, as the ones sold as souvenirs and the like. Eventually, I came to the resolution that I would start photographing origami paper cranes. This subject is vastly different to the previous work I conducted with the mechanical crane; and I am hoping that the coupling of the previous work with this work with origami paper cranes, with the proper selecting, editing and sequencing, will allow unexpected connections to germinate within the viewer’s mind. As Rugoff, always talking within the context of the group exhibition but whose remarks are still pertinent to the current discussion, states: “exhibitions need to ask interesting questions, even unanswerable questions, instead of handing us tidy answers. A successful group show never insinuates that the exciting work of discovery has already been carried out by the curator, and that all that is required of the audience is an ability to read and comprehend the wall labels and point our eyes in the indicated direction. Instead its own interrogatory spirit imbues visitors with a sense of permission to explore and chart their own route through the assembled works of art, and to freely ask the questions and pursue the connections that they find most intriguing” (2006: 46-47).
Rugoff states: “group exhibitions can create a powerful accumulative effect, immersing visitors in an experience that seems expansive and also responsive to the viewer’s own desires to explore a new world. […] they involve us in an implied yet elusive narrative that we end up putting together ourselves as we move through the exhibition” (2006: 48). This notion of “an implied yet elusive narrative” aligns with my intentions of producing a body of work that will ultimately create “a radical, and fertile, space of doubt” (Ibid. 50).
The road is long, and there is still much work to be done in relation to this project, yet I do firmly believe that the journey I have taken will see my creating a body of work that is constructed on the same ethical principles as a landscape painting, which in the case of the work I am currently working on will hopefully provide each viewer with a metaphorical or abstract vista to inhabit and experience. Positioning as my working concept what Rugoff suggests that curators do when creating exhibitions in which they wish their audiences to thrive, with the current work I am doing in relation to the final major project I am to submit at the end of my studies I hope to “encourage visitors to recognize that their questions can be aesthetic acts in and of themselves, as well as ways of extending and elaborating their experience of art” (2006: 51).
RUGOFF, Ralph. 2006. ‘You Talking To Me? On Curating Group Shows that Give You a Chance to Join the Group’. In Paula MARINCOLA (ed.). What Makes a Great Exhibition? Philadelphia Center of Arts and Heritage, 44-51.
Claude Gellée. 1648. Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. The National Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/claude-seaport-with-the-embarkation-of-the-queen-of-sheba [accessed 5 July 2019].
Featured Image:See page for author [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons